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By Sylvia Longmire
Columnist, In Homeland Security
In 2000, the number of U.S. Border Patrol apprehensions of illegal immigrants along the southwest border reached an all-time high of 1.6 million. Fast forward 17 years to 2017 and apprehensions plummeted to a record low of 303,000. Many border security observers have credited everything from the border fence to improved surveillance technology to changing economic conditions for this drop.
But in the last two years, the very nature of northbound migration has changed so much that apprehension numbers might reach the one million mark again, overwhelming existing Border Patrol resources to their breaking point. Worse yet, much of that can be attributed to human smugglers, most of whom give payouts to drug cartels.
Gang-Related Violence and Human Smugglers
Up until roughly 2012, the majority of immigrants crossing the southwest border illegally were from Mexico. Then, some unseen threshold was crossed. More Mexican nationals were leaving the U.S. than were coming in.
Gang-related violence ramped up in Central America, and human smugglers saw an opportunity to shepherd a growing crop of migrants north for thousands of dollars each. Rumors started spreading that family units and migrants traveling with children would likely be released by U.S. immigration authorities after turning themselves in to Border Patrol agents and requesting asylum.
First Major ‘Border Surge’
The first major “border surge” of the last decade occurred in 2014 in South Texas, the closest border sector to Central America. During the first eight months of fiscal year 2014, 47,017 children were apprehended, most of them from Honduras.
According to the Brookings Institute, insufficient space existed to house the large number of apprehended children and the number of removal proceedings seriously overwhelmed the immigration courts. Consequently, children were waiting an average of 578 days before a hearing. During that time, the child would be placed with a parent or family member who would vouch that the child will appear in court.
The controversy began with the legal requirement that children from non-contiguous states were required to be transferred to the Office of Refugee Resettlement within 72 hours and simultaneously placed in removal proceedings with the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR), within the Department of Justice. In many cases, that did not happen.
Photos started leaking of heavily overcrowded detention facilities with adults crammed into fenced areas shoulder to shoulder, and young children without their parents in a facility clearly not designed for children. The entire crisis gave both DHS and the Department of Health and Human Services a black eye.
The Migrant Caravans
Fast-forward to the migrant caravans of late 2018, and it seems clear that DHS did not learn any lessons or make any adjustments after the 2014 border surge. Some additional facilities designed for family units were constructed, but most of them are located far from the border where the migrants entered.
During the highly controversial “zero tolerance” process in April 2018, thousands of migrant children were separated from parents placed into criminal proceedings and placed in homes or facilities far away. Some parents were deported without their children and with no hope of being reunited with them. The people in the caravans knew about this and they came anyway.
The Bus System: ‘Conveyor Belt’ of Human Smuggling
In February 2019 alone, 40,325 migrants arrived at the border in family groups, a 67 percent increase from January, according to the Washington Post. This is at least partly due to the use of a human smuggling bus system called the “conveyor belt.” Migrants pay smugglers an average of $7,000 to ride more safely in a bus from Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala to the northern border. A journey that would take soul-crushing weeks by caravan on foot becomes a few air-conditioned days in a coach.
Smugglers offer a range of price points at different levels of passenger comfort, according to U.S. and Guatemalan officials who spoke to the Post on the condition of anonymity to share sensitive details about smuggling networks’ operations. Customers paying as little as $2,500 are typically made to ride in trucks or stand in cattle cars, while others buying packages for $7,000 or more get premium bus service. In an especially worrisome sign for U.S. officials, the price of the journey has been dropping in recent months as the rapid bus routes allow smugglers to cut costs and boost volume.
There is a strategy as to where the buses drop off their passengers. Under the current system, arriving migrants are told they need to request asylum at ports of entry. However, they’re being metered, which means only a limited amount are being processed each day, leading to huge lines — and in some cases large migrant camps — on the Mexican side of the border.
The decisions about where the bussed groups arrive are not made by the migrants themselves, but by smugglers looking for the best places to quickly deliver large numbers of their clients to U.S. agents. The mass “give-ups” let migrants skip lines at official points of entry, and they can await processing on the U.S. side of the border, where it’s safer.
Trump’s Border Wall Proposal
The Trump administration contends that billions of dollars in funding are required to build more than 230 additional miles of border fencing to address this crisis, which he has labeled a national emergency. However, in recent weeks, according to the Post, large groups have crossed in areas near central El Paso, where tall, modern steel barriers are already in place. Wading through shallow stretches of the Rio Grande, the migrants reach U.S. soil and wait to be taken into custody on the narrow strip of no man’s land between the river and the border fence.
Today’s illegal immigrants want to get caught. This is despite the fact that, even after five years, DHS processing and holding facilities are still designed for the young, single, male Mexican migrant of the 1990s.
Mexico’s response to this bus “conveyor belt” has been mixed. Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has vowed to be kinder to Central American migrants, but caved to the Trump administration demands that they wait out their years-long immigration proceedings in Mexico.
U.S. law enforcement officials have provided Mexican officials with intelligence on bus staging locations in southern Mexico. To date, there is no evidence that they are being turned around or inspected. There is also no evidence that human smugglers have any intention of slowing down the belt they created.